FORTY YEARS ago this week, on the eve of a presidential election that ended a military dictatorship, five masked intruders set fire to the ballot box in Chuschi, a village in the Ayacucho region of the Peruvian Andes. Their action kicked off modern Latin America’s strangest and most brutal guerrilla insurgency, the 12-year terrorist war of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a fundamentalist Maoist outfit akin to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Today, although unexpected death has returned in the form of covid-19, Peru is a vastly better place. But the terror unleashed by Sendero (as Peruvians called the group), often matched by the state’s response, exposed social fractures and left scars. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission later reckoned that 69,000 people were killed or “disappeared”, and around 500,000 were driven from their homes. It blamed Sendero for nearly half of the dead, government forces for around a third and village militias for most of the rest.
Sendero was the creation of Abimael Guzmán, a philosophy professor who gained control of the university in the colonial city of Huamanga, Ayacucho’s capital, in the 1970s, recruiting students and teachers, especially women. His insurgency’s centre was Ayacucho’s rural hinterland of rutted dirt roads, bleak mountains and lonely villages of Quechua-speaking subsistence farmers. Sendero would come to be abhorred by most Peruvians. But its lynchings of abusive officials and traders in a neglected region of an unjust country initially garnered it some popular support.
Bello made half-a-dozen reporting trips to Ayacucho in those years and recalls the atmosphere of menace and grief in a faceless war, often conducted at night. Villagers soon tired of Sendero. Both it and the army committed massacres. Only when the army recognised villagers as allies, organising them in militias, was Sendero defeated in its heartland. By then it had taken its terror and bombings to Lima. It contributed to and fed on an economic collapse.
Mr Guzmán created a bombastic personality cult, calling himself “President Gonzalo” and bracketing himself with Marx, Lenin and Mao as the “fourth sword of Marxism-Leninism”. He acted with absolute moral dissonance. He directed the slaughter from the comfort of rented houses in posh districts of Lima. When old-fashioned detective work tracked him down in 1992, he meekly surrendered. Now aged 85, he has spent decades in jail. A few thousand of his supporters lurk in Lima’s shantytowns.
Alberto Fujimori, who presided over Sendero’s defeat and the economy’s revival, used its threat to erect a dictatorship. Hailed by many as a saviour, and hated by many others as a corrupt authoritarian, Mr Fujimori continues to divide. In different ways, both he and Sendero weakened institutions.
Max Hernández, a psychoanalyst, argues that despite the Truth Commission, the country “never carried out the job of grieving, of trauma relief”. He says that the war revealed that, after five centuries of racial mixing, Peru had yet to bridge the divide between its indigenous population and the rest. Three-quarters of the victims of the war were Quechua-speaking rural people, treated with contempt by Mr Guzmán and with indifference by the state.
In this century a flood of books about the Sendero years has appeared. In 2015 a museum of memory opened in Lima. Based on the work of the Truth Commission, it is moving and even-handed, telling the stories of victims on all sides. It has few visitors. Many Peruvians who lived through their country’s darkest recent chapter want to forget.
As for Ayacucho, “terrorism destroyed everything,” says Carlos Añanyos, whose family set up a soft-drinks business in Huamanga in 1988 that is now a multinational headquartered in Madrid. The region’s income per person is still only two-thirds of the national average. Mr Añanyos has set up a foundation that, pre-pandemic, was promoting tourism in Ayacucho, as well as the region’s products, such as speciality potatoes, natural colourings and handicrafts.
There are other grounds for hope. Out of the wreckage of the 1980s Peru created a successful market economy that slashed poverty. The racial divide has blurred, especially among the young. Economic growth has reached people in the Andes, thanks to better communications. Ayacucho means “corner of the dead” in Quechua. Covid-19 aside, at least that is no longer true.
This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “Looking back on the Shining Path”